Alsop found room to honor her mentor, Leonard Bernstein. Her right hand still bandaged after a fall this summer that injured her wrist, the conductor led a sensitive and affecting account of the “Chichester Psalms” that featured tender solo work by countertenor Iestyn Davies and rich-toned singing from the chorus. Selections from “Candide” also hit the spot. (Alexander Bernstein, the composer's son, rushed backstage after the concert to heap praise on Alsop's account of the Psalms.)
Eccentric British violinist Nigel Kennedy delivered a sweet performance of Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” and a self-indulgent romp through his arrangement of Vittorio Monti’s “Csardas.”
Kennedy seems to have turned into a parody, mugging uncontrollably, stomping, shouting, fist-bumping anyone in sight. It’s a little too manic and silly; a little worrisome, too. But he still has considerable fiddle chops, and the crowd ate it all up.
Alsop was a good sport (I wondered if she would have rather slugged the violinist than return one more fist-bump), and managed to keep the orchestra together through the whole unpredictable ride. In the guest-artist-thanking portion of her Proms speech, Alsop said: “And for whom I have no adjective, Nigel Kennedy.”
The guest star who really owned the hall Saturday night was mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. The American singer let loose with a gorgeous, velvety sound from the get-go in a Massenet aria and delivered familiar pieces by Handel and Rossini with subtle, exquisite phrasing.
The Kansas-born DiDonato turned the cavernous venue into the most intimate of spaces with a disarmingly understated “Over the Rainbow” (a rainbow flag magically appeared among the sea of banners unfurled by Prommers afterward).
UPDATE: I learned later that the singer, taking particular note of the recent ant-gay legislation in Russia, had written on her blog a couple days before the concert that she would be dedicatating her performance of that song to "all of those brave, valorous gay and lesbian souls whose voices are currently being silenced – either by family, friends, or by their government."
In a from-the-ridiculous-to-the-sublime moment, she followed Kennedy’s “Csardas” with a sweet “Danny Boy” and led a quite moving sing-along of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
During the traditional patriotic close of the Last Night, the mezzo was back with more stellar coloratura for the Malcolm Sargent arrangement of “Rule, Britannia” (DiDonato added a regal cape at that point to her sparkly gown).
Alsop had the orchestra tearing into the fast-paced portions of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” March No. 1 with great flourish, but gave the chorus plenty of breathing room for the famous big tune that became the anthem “Land of Hope and Glory” and is invariably sung at Last Night concerts with enormous fervor. (Americans know it as a wordless, stately graduation theme.)
No Last Night would be complete without "Jerusalem," the stirring hymn by Hubert Parry with words by William Blake. You've got to love a patriotic piece that works in the words "dark Satanic mills" and suggests that Jesus (on his way to America to plant some things for Joseph Smith?) stopped by "England's green and pleasant land."
Whatever one makes of the sentiments, the melody is so eloquently expressive that this piece -- something of an alternative national anthem, the British equivalent to "America the Beautiful" -- just grabs hold and stirs deeply, as it did Saurday night.
To close, as always, came the traditional national anthem, here in Britten’s inspired arrangement that has the choir start quietly and solemnly before building vocal and orchestral steam. Once the thousands in the hall chimed in with “God Save the Queen,” it was enough to make even a proud American a willing subject for the night.